Can robotics help us achieve sustainable development?

Olivia Miller
Picture by Pixabay

An international team of scientists including Professor Zoe Davies from the School of Anthropology and Conservation has assessed how robotics and autonomous systems might facilitate or impede the delivery of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Published in Nature Communications, their findings identify key opportunities and key threats that need to be considered while developing, deploying and governing robotics and autonomous systems.

The key opportunities robotics and autonomous systems present are through autonomous task completion, supporting human activities, fostering innovation, enhancing remote access and improving monitoring.

Emerging threats relate to reinforcing inequalities, exacerbating environmental change, diverting resources from tried-and-tested solutions, and reducing freedom and privacy through inadequate governance.

Technological advancements have already profoundly altered how economies operate and how people, society and environments inter-relate. Robotics and autonomous systems are reshaping the world, changing healthcare, food production and biodiversity management.

However, the associated potential positive and negative effects caused by their involvement in the SDGs had not been considered systematically. Therefore, the researchers conducted a horizon scan to evaluate the impact this cutting-edge technology could have on SDGs delivery. It involved more than 102 experts from around the world, including 44 experts from low- and middle-income countries.

Professor Davies co-designed the methodology used in the study and is a senior author on the research paper. She said: ‘As of early 2020, insufficient progress was being made towards meeting the SDGs by 2030 and the Covid-19 pandemic has reversed progress made and further stalled it.

‘Mobilising digital technology could significantly help facilitate the achievement of the SDGs if successfully integrated into other global initiatives, strategies or social goal settings. Regulation and goal setting will be key to this process.’

Lead author Dr Solène Guenat began the research while at the Sustainability Research Institute at Leeds. She is now at the Institute for Landscape Planning and Ecology of the University of Stuttgart. The research was conducted as part of Leeds’ Self Repairing Cities project. This project, concluded in 2021, aimed to enable robots and autonomous systems to maintain urban infrastructure without causing disruption to citizens.

Dr Guenat said: ‘Robotics and autonomous systems are here to stay and will fundamentally transform how we interact with one another, technology and the environment.

‘This transformation offers many potential benefits for sustainable development. However, realising those benefits while minimising unintended consequences is a complex challenge. Early identification of possible negative impacts along with early collaboration and continued dialogue across stakeholders will help us seize opportunities while avoiding pitfalls.’

Despite identifying emerging threats, participants indicated that the impact of robotics and autonomous systems on progress towards the SDGs was likely to be overwhelmingly positive. No SDG was determined to be predominately negatively impacted by robotics and autonomous systems.

However, the future overall impact of robotics and autonomous systems on achieving the SDGs was acknowledged to be hard to predict, especially for goals dealing with inequalities.

The paper ‘Meeting Sustainable Development Goals via Robotics and Autonomous Systems’ is published by Nature Communications. doi: 10.1038/s41467-022-31150-5)